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Let's keep discussions open, frank and public

'There are no gays in Sochi." Or at least that's what the burly mayor of the resort declared when questioned before the start of the controversial Winter Olympics. Publicly, he may well be right. Last year Vladimir Putin signed into law measures that banned "homosexual propaganda", effectively removing the LGBT community from public life and driving it further underground.

It's a long way from the icy slopes of Sochi to the leafy confines of Donnybrook. The battle lines are being drawn before the Marriage Equality referendum.

A lively and frank conversation with Rory O'Neill, the man behind the performer Miss Panti Bliss, on the Saturday Night Show was swiftly countered with legal action against RTE by the Iona Institute and John Waters. RTE offered a series of remedies to meet the concerns of the individuals involved, including the right of reply. After these offers were spurned, the broadcaster took legal advice and settled in order to avoid a long drawn out legal battle it felt it was doomed to ultimately lose.

There has been much discussion about the rights or wrongs of RTE management deciding to bring a swift and relatively inexpensive end. The Oireachtas Committee on which I serve has asked RTE to provide an explanation, and I will give that proper consideration when I get it. However, this debate should not simply be about RTE, there are far bigger issues of freedom of expression and the value system of this country at stake.

As a republican who firmly believes in the non-negotiable principle of equality, I am completely and utterly unapologetic about my support for marriage equality.

I acknowledge fully that people on either side of the debate feel passionately about the issue. However, in a republic this debate should be open and not limited by one side rushing to their lawyers.

In this light the Iona Institute cannot claim to be above name calling. More sensitive and thin-skinned members of the Oireachtas might have taken offence at being called "consensus monkeys" or "bonkers" in articles by David Quinn and John Waters but in reality it is part of the cut and thrust of debate on our country.

It would be deeply unfortunate and immensely damaging to our capacity as a people to deliberate on sensitive issues if debate is stifled by litigious elements. As science evolves and society changes, we will be increasingly faced with complex issues. Across a broad remit of areas, of which LGBT rights is only one part, we face pressing questions that cut to the very heart of our value system. In a democracy we should deal with these challenges through an open and fair discussion. If debates are smothered under an avalanche of law suits, our ability to reach a common consensus will be eroded.

Instead we will slip into a ceaseless culture war fought in the trenches of the Four Courts, where deep pockets will decide the course of public debate. Intolerance driven on by trenchant ideologues rather than empathy will become the hallmarks of an increasingly sterile national conversation.

I think we are better than that. I believe we are more than capable of having a mature discussion on issues that challenge all of us, of reflecting on the debate and then casting our ballots accordingly. Having this discussion will demand some level of patience, personal restraint and mutual respect but should not be chilled by fear of a solicitor's letter.

For my own part I believe we have already made immense progress in previously sensitive areas. Ireland made leaps and bounds in advancing genuine equality for the LGBT community over the past two decades.

From the decriminalisation of homosexuality to the enshrinement of anti-discriminatory laws, the country has made significant strides forward.

Miss Panti gave an eloquent address to a spellbound Abbey theatre audience last week. It struck a deep chord with anyone who has ever felt out of place. As a society we cannot allow these marginalised voices to be silenced before the debate begins.

Far from Donnybrook, there is a vibrant LGBT community in Sochi that endures a vicious cocktail of institutional and social discrimination but continues on regardless. The efforts by Putin to silence them will not be effective.

Timmy Dooley is the Fianna Fail transport, tourism and sport spokesman and is a member of the Oireachtas Communications Committee.

Irish Independent